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University Uncertainty: Students Respond to Fall 2020 Possibilities

Universities around the country are announcing their plans for the fall semester. Regardless of the plan, all schools are hoping students will be willing to abide by any new policies and procedures in order to return to the campus experience.


College kids are going to do what college kids are going to do. I can only speak from my ¾ of a normal year’s worth of experience, but given my upcoming conditions, social distancing is just not possible. Next year, I am living in a house with 21 friends (it’s a big house). I am living in a double. We have one dining room. We serve food as a buffet. If one of us gets Covid-19, it seems likely that we’ll all get it.

We students have a choice to make. Do we risk sickness and uncertainty to get an education? Do we miss out on the full experience and stay safe with online schooling? Is it time to take a gap year, and wait out a vaccine? Do we not come back at all?

Holden Thorp, former chancellor at UNC, provost at Wash. U. and current editor of Science Magazine, says “the students want to come back bad enough that they would be willing to accept a good number of changes.” He also acknowledges his skepticism that students will be diligent in keeping a safe environment, and that there is little method to keeping students from socializing.

Greg Simmons, an administrator at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, suggests something else – that students may also be changing where they want to go to college, or how much they’re willing to spend on their education.  UMBC, a traditionally commuter friendly school, is seeing an increase in deposits for the fall semester. “I attribute that to kids wanting to be closer to home,” says Simmons.

We at August Jackson, with some help from Thorp and Simmons, put together a poll. I asked colleagues of mine, friends from high school, and friends from college to take part in a survey, and we got close to 100 responses – not a national survey, but a large enough sample size to be revealing.

It seems that students are pretty clear in their desire to learn. The first thing we asked students to do was rank their priorities for their college experience, bringing us back to the question of what should students do next semester. The things students in this survey valued most were education and their future. Safety was in the middle while “fun” and “immediate source of money (whether for education or living expenses)” were the least valued.

Students also overwhelmingly backed an in-person semester – only 1 person said they would not enroll for an in-person semester – and a lot of colleges have already condensed the semester in order to be back in person.

The least popular option for the fall semester in the poll was an online semester, which had 43% of people less likely to enroll, but only 4% saying they definitely wouldn’t enroll. Interestingly enough, the condensed semester option that many universities are doing had little to no backlash. 12% of students said they were less likely to enroll if the semester is condensed, but no one ruled it out, so it seems like the best option.

In terms of social life, I don’t know how effective any attempts to counter students’ activities will be. Obviously, the living situations are going to make social distancing hard. 88% of students did say, however, that they would comply with their schools attempts to make a safe environment. In a follow up question, however, the results were not as promising. 42% of the people who answered our poll did not plan on social distancing. Our generation is restless right now (protests, civil unrest, parties, etc.), so attempts to regulate what students do outside the classroom seem impractical at this point.

This situation has also caused a need for universities to remind students why they decided to go to college in the first place. Almost 55% of respondents said the virus has affected their perception of the value of college, and 11% of respondents said they are considering alternatives to college, such as vocational schools. This growing sentiment, coupled with the fact that the virus is affecting the ability of many students to pay for school, shows how important this upcoming semester is for affirming the value and relevance of the college experience for our futures. A concentrated effort to make this semester be valuable, and not just trying to survive it, will go a long way with students. Providing concrete and tangible ways to help us plan for and navigate our future might be more critical than ever – like Colby’s Pay it Northward campaign, which is their push to create job opportunities for their graduating class.

I feel—and this is backed up by my peers—that the more normal the college experience is, the better. Once we can get things rolling, students will once again see the value in college and get something out of the experience much more than they would Zooming from home.

At August Jackson, we believe that developing powerful brand engagement begins with mutual understanding and strong partnerships. We value the relationships we have with our clients and, together, aim to develop activations and communities built from the same foundation. 

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